Massive Extortion on Nigerian Highways
By Tordue Simon Targema
Although extortion by security agents mounting roadblocks on Nigerian highways is not a new phenomenon, the trend has assumed an alarmingly worrisome dimension recently. A foreigner plying Nigerian roads in a commercial vehicle would think Nigerian security agents are double-tasked to be collecting taxes as well from drivers! Perhaps, the confidence which the officers demonstrate while collecting the illegal money and the coercive techniques which they deploy in doing so will dispel any doubt from the foreigner that such money is illegal and extortionist in nature. Sadly, this is the situation motorists and commuters on Nigerian highways have found themselves in.
I have extensively travelled across Nigeria. As an academic staff of a university, I have the privilege of travelling across the country. For instance, after obtaining my bachelor’s degree in the north-east, I moved to the north-west and obtained a master’s degree, and am currently pursuing my doctorate degree in the south-south. This has given me an extensive exposure to Nigerian roads. Also, I have attended several academic conferences in each of the six geopolitical zones. My experience on Nigerian roads is a very horrible one, made so by a multiplicity of factors such as the deplorable nature of the roads and massive extortion by security agents. These have made the thought of traveling in Nigeria by road a dreaded one even to people who are extremely adventurous by nature, to talk less of those who have phobia for travelling.
My experience on a recent trip to one of the south-south states from the north-east spurred me to pen down this piece. In what appeared to be a painfully interesting drama series, we watched cheerfully, albeit in deep anguish as our driver bargained with our security agencies who, I learnt, have raised the charge from the normal 50 naira to 100 naira, a development that did not go down well with commercial drivers. My driver was highly agitated paying the new charge but could not help it. He devised all possible gimmicks to resist it which could not help out. First, he attempted evading as many of these checkpoints as he could- army, police, civil defence, immigration, road safety and vigilante, custom, produce tax force ….name it! But this strategy usually backfired, as each of the checkpoints he evaded would call the very next checkpoint ahead and ask them to bundle us right back.
In no time, he realized that this was not by any means a workable strategy, and with intense pressure from the equally agitated passengers, decided to cooperate. Of course he had to, because the few experiences we had with the checkpoints he evaded were terrible, as the security agencies were utterly aggressive and would at each of such instances traumatize him, heap up charges against him and intimidate him as much as they could to coerce him into submission. Worst of all, each of those checkpoints he evaded demanded for- and actually collected from him- far more than their normal 100 naira. To cap it all, he nearly had an accident in the process of evading one of such checkpoints! Obviously, evading the checkpoints was not the way to go; a different strategy was, thus, imminent.
Mind game, pleading, teasing and joking with the security agencies was the next strategy. At each of the checkpoints, he would use any of these he felt was the most appropriate. For instance, if he had discovered by virtue of experience, appearance or instinct that a certain officer was a northerner, he was sure to use emotional appeal as a way to escape the payment. Language would have been a formidable force in this regard but for the obsession of our officers with money who would still insist he tip them after the pleasantries. You would feel their whole being and soul depend squarely on the illicit money they collect from drivers! Well, on a handful of occasions, this strategy worked and he was waived the charge.
Teasing and joking with the security operatives was the next strategy, but after it, they would always ask: anything for the boys? In such cases, our driver would retort: oga, when I de return, I’ll see you. At this, some would let go, but most would remind him that that is what he said while he was coming down! In such unfortunate cases, he would have no escape but to cooperate.
Another strategy he adopted was to tell them he had no change. In such cases, he would give them a thousand naira note to prove he has no change. This was a counterproductive strategy and in no time, he had to drop it, perhaps, forced by pressure from passengers because it was time wasting. Why? Upon receipt of the thousand naira note, the officers would not let him go with it, but reluctantly look for change from their previous collections and give him. In the event they did not get it there, they would have to wait until collections from other drivers coming behind us complete the change! This generated intense condemnations of the passengers who felt that he was wasting their time and asked him to be cooperating or if indeed he had no change as he claimed, look for change at a filling station. Of course, the driver himself was pissed off with the attitude of the officers and had no choice but to change strategy.
Next was the use of prospective NYSC members as a bargain point. This strategy worked for him significantly- not without difficulties though. Luckily for him, he had about four prospective NYSC members from the south-south deploying to their orientation camp as his passengers. Trust our smart driver; it took him no time at all to activate this as a point of bargain! Oga, na kopas I carry ooo, he would tell each officer that rudely returned his 50 naira. Boom! Questions from all angles would start pouring out: kopa never pay for their transport? Na for free you carry them? Bla-bla-bla. At these, he would strongly insist that the prospective corps members were government properties, that the car he was driving is a government vehicle (the car actually had SURE-P inscribed on it), and that the officers too are government agents, hence, there is no point collecting much from him for conveying the corps members to their orientation camp. This would usually weaken the officers who would never give up but instead, as a final push, return to us: where are the kopas? At this we would all chorus: na we ooo! Of course, even those of us that were not corps members would join in to add to the echo. They would then tease us, ask us some few jovial questions, collect the 50 naira and then we move.
This was one of his most effective strategies. Despite its seeming efficiency, some of the rude officers would out rightly reject his 50 naira, ask him to go and park and delay us until he gets sense in his head to give them their rightful 100 naira. Indeed, it was their entitlement. A look at the manner in which it was being demanded and collected dispels every doubt that such collections are illicit. At some of the checkpoints, the officers would, without saying anything else, ask the driver to go and park. At such points, he would oblige, park his vehicle, come down and walk up to them to give them their due. I found this arrogant and irritating too. Why? If you are shameless enough to descend so low and extort poor commercial drivers, then you should be prepared to keep aside all silly notions of pride and dignity and take it right there on the road before the prying eyes of passengers and all onlookers. But some of our pompous officers feel they are above this, and would rather the driver park, walk back and pay them their dues. No thought of the delay such would cause the commuters, no. they simply wanted their money and nothing else!
In one of the state in the north-central region, this worrisome trend has assumed yet another funny dimension. Trucks (used for pushing water and other commodities) are used at checkpoints, perhaps, because they are easier to push and much more flexible than logs of woods. Still in the same state, the officers- almost at each checkpoint- have engaged the services of jobless young men who stand on the road and coordinate the illicit deal for them. At these points, such young men are as pitiless and brutal as the sun or a heavy rain on a lone traveller in the heart of a desert. They would neither listen to any plea nor get amused by the jokes of the driver. Never would they give in to any of his antics or gimmicks, worst of all, they have scant or no regard at all for NYSC! If anything, the mention of it gets them irritated. They got our driver really hard at this. Who be kopa? Na weting kopa de give me? They would ask him. And their gallant officers were ever ready to step in should any driver underrate them. Perhaps, the driver understood that they are traps to lure the wrath of the officers. He would oblige, give them the 100 naira once all tricks fail and then they would pull away their trucks and we would move on.
As we drove deeper into the night, the due increased. Rightfully, it increased to 200 naira, then 300 naira. It got to a point where we had to go down and collectively beg the officers that we are NYSC members deploying to our orientation camp, that they should give us consideration. They first turned deaf ears at us- perhaps, out of guilt- but latter allowed our driver to pass. Clearly, our infuriated driver saw that he would not continue at that pace. He had to find a town nearby, parked at a filling station and we passed the night there.
You would think the proliferation of security checkpoints on our highways is an assurance of safety! At this, I bet my last kobo that you are woefully wrong. Around 4:30 am, we hit the road again. At the first checkpoint after we took off, an officer- after collecting his due- whispered to the driver that the road was not safe. Armed robbers were on operation some miles away! Armed robbers with this heavy security presence? I asked myself. The driver had to stop again. At first, we thought it was a lie but could not take the risk of defying the caution, so we stayed there till day break. Around 6:00 am, we continued and, lo and behold, came to the spot of the armed robbers’ operation! Two 18-seater buses stood there, their front tires flattened with bullets and the windscreen pierced through with bullets too. No passenger was wounded, even as they stood there traumatized. They were unlucky. They got robbed. An old woman who could not stand the trauma fainted and was rushed to the nearby hospital afterwards. We stopped by and the stranded passengers eagerly narrated their ordeals. We couldn’t help out because our vehicle had no space for more passengers, and so, we only kept them solidarity companionship of about five minutes and moved on.
No doubt, the rising tide of insecurity contributes significantly to the deployment of security operatives on the highways. This explains why their presence is most conspicuous in conflict-tone and banditry-ridden states. Little wonder too that they feel their services on the roads are indispensable and they should be handsomely appreciated or rewarded by the people they protect. Now, I am not disputing this fact, neither I’m I underrating their importance. But I feel strongly that the government whose primary prerogative is to secure lives and property of citizens should saddle the responsibility of catering for the welfare and incentives of the security operatives they deploy on the highways squarely, and not to push it to vulnerable drivers and commuters.
Of course, commuters bear the financial burden too, indirectly through arbitrary increments and hikes of transport fares. A friend of mine boarded a commercial bus and was charged 6,050 naira as transport fare. Curiously, he asked what the 50 naira on top is meant for and was promptly told it will be used for settling security operatives at checkpoints. I do not envy Nigerian commercial drivers, I really don’t. Jalingo to Porthacourt for instance has way over a hundred security check points. Imagine giving 100 naira at each of the checkpoints, that’s way over 10,000 naira. In essence, an average commercial driver uses the transport fare of about two passengers just for settling security operatives at checkpoints. This is outrageous and really unfortunate, to imagine that the cost of spare parts has skyrocketed to an unprecedented degree. I won’t talk of fuel and lubricants required to service the vehicles. I began to ponder: what do the drivers take home after giving returns to their companies, fuelling the vehicles, minor and major repairs here and there, and settling our officers on the highways? No answer came handy. I simply shook my head and redirected my thoughts to the music in my earpiece. That made more sense and in no time, I got engrossed in my thoughts and forgot about the security men as though they never existed.
It is sad to admit that although our security operatives deserve our daily prayers due to the danger they face daily confronting bandits and terrorists here and there, this extortionist tendency has taken away the public sympathy they deserve and earn them curse and disrespect from commuters and drivers. This is very bad. It is about time the government checked the rising trend. In the interest of our commercial drivers and commuters, all forms of extortion on the highways must be abolished. Government should be prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of our officers on the highways and when that is done, deal decisively with officers found extorting vulnerable passengers.
I must confess that this is one area president Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has dashed my expectations woefully. In 2015, just before his inauguration, I recall travelling to another part of the country. A security officer was boisterously threatening to beat up our driver for refusing to give him his due. The sharp reaction of our young driver created a scene and in no time, the officer trumped-up charges that never existed on the young man- driving licence, manifest, vehicle papers, commuters’ national identification documents, bla-bla-bla. He eventually got the driver who succumbed to the pressure that was already mounting and paid the due.
After we passed, I told the elderly man seating beside me with an air of confidence: the General has come, let me see how they will do this come next month. The old man chuckled and asked me: you think so? I replied in the affirmative. He smiled again and, with a tone of indifference, told me that nothing would actually change. In fact, he charged me to expect the worst. A conversation ensured and I tried my best to explain to him that although I was not president Buhari’s fan and did not think I will ever be, I was confident that once he takes over, all forms of extortions- especially the obvious ones like those on the highways would cease with immediate effect. The old man simply dismissed my argument in a predictive tone: well, time shall tell better. I affirmed his submission and hoped for a day when extortion on the highways would become a thing of the past in Nigeria, a day that has refused to, and seem never to arrive anytime soon.
Concerned authorities should note that while this day delays its arrival, the effects on commercial drivers and commuters are, at the moment, unbearable. The time to end extortion on our highways is now. By-the-way, the deplorable condition of our roads is one other thing that usually stress-out life from commuters! In my next article, I shall relieve my experience on the Jalingo-Numan and Odukpani-Uyo roads. I am sure you will find it heart touching too, for now, I leave you in peace.
Tordue Simon Targema writes from the Department of Mass Communication, Taraba State University Jalingo. Email: email@example.com